Expect your kids to eye you with more than the usual amount of skepticism, maybe even a measure of suspicion, on the way home from “Matilda the Musical.’’
Why? Because they’ll have just experienced a far-from-reassuring portrait of the adult world.
The incarnation of “Matilda’’ that has arrived at the Boston Opera House is not as consistently inspired and magically transporting as the original Broadway production was. But the distinctive strengths of this rich, dark, and satisfyingly strange musical still come through, including a superbly varied and intricate score by composer-lyricist Tim Minchin.
In “Matilda,’’ a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel that features a Tony-winning book by Dennis Kelly and is directed by Matthew Warchus, the grownups are, at best, well-meaning but clueless or helpless. At worst — by far the dominant mode — they’re downright malevolent, fiercely intent on squelching any spark of individuality in the younger generation.
Beyond its vivid particulars, “Matilda’’ registers as a parable about authoritarianism and the unchecked abuse of power, epitomized by school headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a raving, splenetic bully. (You may find yourself thinking of another raving, splenetic bully, currently in the public eye, whose name also starts with a T.)
As in the best good-vs.-evil tales, one person stands against Miss Trunchbull and the soul-crushing conformity for which she stands: Matilda Wormwood, a 5-year-old possessed of genius-level intelligence, an avid love of books, the gift of telekinesis, the equally important gift of storytelling, and an unshakeable sense of right and wrong, expressed in the phrase Matilda doggedly repeats several times: “That’s not right.’’
The remarkable Sarah McKinley Austin, who is just 9 years old, portrayed Matilda on opening night (the role rotates among several young performers). Austin skillfully captures Matilda’s preternaturally calm self-possession, and she brings a beautiful poignancy to the world-silencing ballad “Quiet.’’ As her antagonist, Miss Trunchbull, Dan Chameroy conveys the character’s chilling combination of cunning calculation and eruptive, out-of-control unpredictability.
On balance, “Matilda’’ is aimed more at the head than the heart. Yes, you’ll be moved when the embattled schoolchildren sketch hopeful visions of the future in “When I Grow Up’’ while they soar on long rope swings. And you’ll get a lump in your throat when Austin’s Matilda suddenly clasps her timid teacher, Miss Honey (the pure-voiced Paula Brancati), in a hug out of sheer gratitude for the sort of kindness the child never experiences at home. And yes, it is exhilarating when the kids finally rise up against their tyrannical and sadistic headmistress in “Revolting Children,’’ a climactic number that taps into the joyous energies of youthful rebellion and is kicked off in winningly high style by Ryan Christopher Dever, who plays erstwhile Trunchbull target Bruce Bogtrotter.
But overall this is a rigorously intelligent musical that makes admirably few concessions to our desire for a cozily uplifting experience. “Annie’’ promises you that the sun will come out tomorrow; “Matilda,’’ despite the eventual triumph of good, is grounded in the more realistic suggestion that it will always have to remain vigilant against evil. This is a show that would much rather take you on an unsettling journey into some of the murkier recesses of human nature.
Rob Howell’s sets range from garish (the home Matilda shares with her lunkheaded parents and brother) to forbiddingly gothic (the school where Miss Trunchbull lords it over her young victims). The dancing is sharp and propulsive (choreography is by Peter Darling). Some numbers don’t deliver quite enough charge, however. “Telly,’’ an ode to the glories of television by Matilda’s dimwit father, played here by Brandon McGibbon, is not the showstopper it should be. Matilda’s narcissistic mother, portrayed by Darcy Stewart, doesn’t come across as deranged enough, even in her big number, “Loud,’’ though Stephen Diaz is hilariously limber as her dance partner, Rudolpho.
It is in “Loud’’ where composer-lyricist Minchin delivers some of his most trenchant commentary on our age, including this gem, sung by the oblivious Mrs. Wormwood: “What you know matters less than the volume with which what you don’t know’s expressed.’’ That feels truer every day, alas, which is all the more reason to heed the wise words of young Matilda, from the song “Naughty,’’ early in Act 1: “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it. . . . Nobody else is gonna put it right for me; nobody but me is gonna change my story; sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.’’
MATILDA THE MUSICAL
Based on the novel by Roald Dahl. Book by Dennis Kelly. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography by Peter Darling. Production by Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers. Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Boston Opera House, through June 26.Tickets: 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.